Sunday, January 31, 2010


And now, for an adventure with some of our high-tech toys.


This is the control panel for the heat exchanger. It was 0 degrees outside this morning, as shown above. You can also see, by the curve of that arrow inside the outline of a house, that the system is not taking in outside air; it’s re-circulating it instead.


This is the thermometer on the woodstove’s stovepipe, this morning. It is so cold, that the gauge is so far over to the right that it’s reading as though it’s shatteringly hot. Don’t be fooled. Cold, cold, cold.

It warmed up during the day, but didn’t break the freeze line. I think it got up to 25 or so. It was, however, SUNNY! Yay! So later on, in the afternoon, I went down to the basement to see how the solar panels were doing. I used our handy-dandy contractor’s lamp to shed some light on the situation…




Here we see that the temperature at the collectors (“COL”) is 68.5, and falling fast. (I took another picture not more than a second later, and it had dropped .2 of a degree.)


But, AHA, even on a cold day, the sun still does its magic. The temperature at the bottom of the water tank (“TST” for “tank storage temperature”, I think) is a whopping 133.3 degrees. That’s plenty, plenty hot.

(A refresher:  the solar panels heat the water at the bottom of the tank…the boiler heats the water at the top of the tank.)  Speaking of the water at the top of the tank, let’s go have a look at that. The thermometer for that is on the water tank itself:


This is great: see, the boiler, which heats water both for the baseboard heating, and for domestic hot water, is on a timer. It’ll do its job for the baseboard heating whenever it’s asked to by the various thermostats around the house. But for heating domestic hot water, it only goes on first thing in the morning for a couple or three hours, and then again around dinner time for maybe three or four hours. That way we have hot water for cooking and clean up.

The gauge above is telling us that the water temperature at the top of the water tank is 120 degrees, many hours after the boiler’s been quiescent. This is because the heat from the super-hot solar-heated water at the bottom of the tank has risen, heating the water at the top of the tank. (I know from experience that on a cloudy day, with no solar activity at the panels, by the middle of the day, this would be down to 100 or so.)

So far, the one impact of how this is all set up, on our lifestyle is that on a cloudy day, if we run a load of hot water laundry during the day, we’ll have no hot water left in the middle of the afternoon. At 6:00 pm, the boiler will click on, giving us hot water in short order. I’ve only regretted this one time – a day I wasn’t feeling particularly great and decided a hot soak in the tub before dinner was what I needed. On that occasion, I just did a manual override on the timer, waited 20 minutes, and had my soak.

Did you enjoy the tour? Are you ready for a kitty picture?


“She’s looking at us! She’s taking our picture! We’re supposed to look at the camera!” (Charlie resolutely fixes his gaze elsewhere.)




(Charlie finally gets with the program.)

MAGGIE and CHARLIE in unison:


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Not one, but two, contractors visited us today

We were surprised to see a truck coming up the driveway this morning. We knew the concrete guy would be coming by to take a look at the failed stain on the bump out floor, but we were expecting him in the late morning.

Turns out it was the plumber. We had planned for all the various fixtures and amenities, from the shower head down to the TP holder, to be in a brushed chrome finish. Alas, when the shower/tub fixtures were installed, whoops, they were polished chrome.


100_1280  100_1279


 100_1288   100_1287

The plumber also took care of a loose nut on the union coupling on the intake to the water tank. Gosh, that sounded so technical! Go, Princess Groundy Pants! It had been dripping recently.

But that’s nothing compared to the recent mini-flood in the basement through the bulkhead door. The other night, I went down there to tend to the cats’ litter box and was overjoyed to see a six foot long puddle. My prayers to be nudged to mop the basement floor have been answered!

We checked the bulkhead – which sorta looks like Snoopy’s dog house in profile – and structurally, it seemed sound – totally dry. Our buddy Michael had even put a new roof on it last fall. The flashing between the new siding and the bulkhead also seemed to be fine. The only thing we could see was that the concrete floor and walls were damp. So later in the day, when the concrete guy showed up, we asked him to have a look. His feeling is that the cement blocks that comprise the below-ground walls of the bulkhead have been absorbing water – perhaps the sealant that was (presumably) coating them all these years is failing. We suspect that all the digging in the immediate vicinity over the course of the summer may have something to do with it as well.


But this is what the concrete guy actually came to see us for:


This is just one example of where a wipe-your-feet mat has pulled the stain right off the concrete – which shouldn’t be possible. The stain is supposed to have penetrated the concrete. He thinks he’s going to have to use a grinder/sander kind of device to scrape up the stain, and we’ll start all over again.

That’ll make an unholy mess, but we’ll mitigate it by putting up a plastic barrier between the bump out and the living room. And he’ll use a grinder that’s got a bag attached to it, like a handheld sander, or a lawnmower with the bag attached.


Just so long as it doesn’t interfere with our ability to use the treadmill in the meantime – we’ll just drag all eight hundred pounds of it into the living room.

Speaking of the treadmill…My plan for today was a two mile run – that doesn’t sound like much, does it? But that’s what Training Guru #1 called for. Training Guru #2 calls for micro walking breaks. For the running parts, I was at nine minute miles today and I have the insane (?) goal of getting to 8:30 miles. (One such mile is a piece of cake. Thirteen of them strung together, on the other hand…) 

I’ve also been “lifting weights”, if you can count the baby girl dumbbells I’ve been using as “weights”. I mention this because Charlie’s trying to help me strengthen my forearms as I type up this blog post:


That’s not just his delicate little paw on me – he’s got half his not inconsiderable weight on me here. Such a helpful kitty.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

time to flood the beds for skating!

This is a phrase my childhood friend Leslie’s mom would say to get us up in the morning when I slept over at their house.

It came to mind when I looked out the window this morning after the recent thaw:


That lovely sheen is ice.  When I went out to get the mail yesterday  I heard this inexplicable dull roar. It took me a good minute or two to realize it was the East Putney Brook in full flood. Woo hoo! It almost crested the bridge.

Although the roads are OK, getting out to them is a hassle. All the more reason to play on the treadmill! With my new buddy, greenbean! (That’s what I’ve named the new iPod Shuffle.)


It’s TINY!! It arrived yesterday. The FedEx guy couldn’t get his truck up the driveway. I only saw him because I was virtuously lifting weights in the living room and happened to see him lumbering up on foot.

Between the two of us, Kevin and I have well over 7,000 songs on our main iPod. We have a ton of songs that I don’t even know we have until they come around on global shuffle – great 70’s stuff that I know inside out, but never knew the artist name (Gerry Rafferty, anyone?) and a million other things. As some of you will already know, iTunes will figure out great playlists for you, using your own music, but only if it all lives on one computer…which in our case, it does not. So that’s a little project I need to take care of.

Well, speaking of the treadmill… time to work out. On a final note…


I know you think you’ve seen this picture before, but this is Maggie, not Charlie. I get such a kick out of seeing them on the windowsills, since usually, a space you intend for a cat is not a space they have any interest in.

Friday, January 22, 2010

A quiet day


This is the winner of our Longest Icicle contest. By now it’s actually four or five inches longer. This view, by the way, is from the kitchen window, facing west, up the hill. Those are cute terraces that some long ago dweller made. We keep ‘em chock full o’ weeds, except for this pretty euonymous shrub that goes bright red in the fall. Kevin – in the pre-my arrival on the scene era – planted veggies here. I’ll have to ask him how that went – I can’t imagine there was enough sun. This is generally a ferny paradise back here. Newsflash: he reports that green beans and wildflowers did well.

Apropos of nothing, when I was a kid, one of my ambitions was to have a matched set of black panthers as pets.


I kinda got my wish. They’re a little smaller than panthers, I guess. That’s Charlie in the foreground and Maggie on the rug.

In other news, I am glad to report that the official training program for today called for “rest”, which I was happy to comply with.  By “rest”, I assume they also mean the following:

  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup oats, run through the blender
  • 1/2 tspn salt
  • 1/2 tspn baking soda
  • ~4 T butter
  • 1/4 C veggie oil
  • 1 egg
  • 1/3 C brown sugar
  • ~2 T finely shaved dark chocolate
  • between 1/3 and 1/2 C natural, crunchy peanut butter
  • a couple of handfuls Girardhelli’s 60% cocoa chocolate chips

Stir the dry stuff together; use new beaters from mother-in-law (hi, Joan!) to mix wet stuff; incorporate dry in to wet, beat beat beat, add the shaved chocolate, beat, add the PB last, beat, add in the chocolate chips by hand, 9 minutes at 350 degrees.  *burp*.

See? Being on sabbatical has just unleashed my creative genius.  And you thought you were going to be reading about a house addition project. HAH!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

so what am I up to these days?


This cute little thing is an iPod Shuffle. It’s my gift to myself for having had the balls to commit to doing a half marathon this summer. My previous record was last summer’s 10K (a little less than half the distance). Prior to that, I was content to run 3 or 3.5 miles, a few times a week.

The blessed event isn’t until mid August. My training regime at the moment has me running ever-so-slightly more often than I’d be running if I weren’t gearing up, but the distance of each run is – so far – no big deal. 3 miles tops, for at least the next five or six weeks. Then things start ramping up.

We’re getting used to the treadmill. Kevin’s on it as I type this. He’s got the regular iPod with him. I have to confess, I didn’t just get the little Shuffle pictured above as a treat – I got it because I live in fear that one of us will drop the normal iPod on the concrete floor.  The Shuffle’s so tiny, you clip it to your clothing.

Other things I’m thinking about these days:


I can’t even begin to describe how clueless and overwhelmed I am concerning the whole “green things in the ground’ topic. For some of you, that may come as a surprise, because apparently I emit this crunchy-granola vibe. But in actual truth, my experience with gardening is confined to some wretched childhood experiences. My Sainted Mother (hi Mom!) would occasionally send me out to the gravel patio in back of our house to take on the dandelions armed with nothing but a butter knife.

You know those wonderful people who plant gardens wherever they go? That’s Not Me. My best friend, whom I refer to as “My Wife”, nicknamed me “Princess Groundy Pants” a few years ago when I was whining about how completely untethered I felt in this department.

In my own defense, I can identify pretty much any tree native to this region in the middle of winter by looking at bark and buds (thanks, Antioch New England Graduate School!), so I’m not a complete loss.

Anyway. Lately I’ve been reading up (which also occasionally means listening to podcasts) on permaculture and sustainable landscaping. Here’s what I know so far:

1. The Lawn Proper: If it’s more-or-less green, that’s good enough for us. Neither of us is interested in using fertilizer and pesticides and whatnot to achieve the all-American Perfectly Manicured Lawn. For a lot of reasons. The inherent environmental silliness is part of it. Our rural location is a factor. And, bringing up the rear, we have Basic Laziness.

The addition project pretty much destroyed the lawn.

lawn - before

Before the project got underway, our lawn was a magical purple paradise.


Here’s that same spot, on the day the excavators came back to smear the dirt piles around evenly. They spread some grass seed and hay and we’ll see what pops up this spring.

2. I’d like the landscape to be ‘useful’. Let’s take foundation shrubs, to hide the underside of the deck, as an example. I generally loathe foundation shrubs. But I can see where they’d come in handy. Why can’t they be blueberry bushes? I’ve thought about planting some fruit trees on the edge of the lawn, before it slopes down to the creek bed. And I’d love to be helpful to butterflies, particularly monarchs. Perhaps we can let the lawn in back of the house become a wildflower/milkweed meadow. We Shall See.

That’s about as far as I’ve gotten. The aforementioned Sainted Mother has plied me with various books by her buddy Julie Moir Messervy, who happens to live not far from us - “The Inward Garden”, “Home Outside”, etc. Reading those has been inspirational.


In the morass of the last few years, the details of which I’ll spare you, I just lost interest in cooking. A typical dinner might be chicken subjected to the searing hug of the George Foreman grill, and some steamed broccoli. I’d rotate that with two other standbys, and that was about the repertoire around here.

While I’m not about to embark on a culinary adventure on a par with my cousin Emily, I have been organizing all the random recipes I’ve collected or been given over the years, and I’ve made probably a dozen dishes over the past couple of months that I’ve never made before. For some reason, people keep giving me recipes for brownies. I can’t imagine why.

There’s other stuff, but my regular media diet is calling, so I’ll write more another time.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

I used to be a geek

…and it still pops up in my world. Today’s example:

As is pretty typical, our shiny new treadmill lets you adjust your speed in tenths of a mile.


Here we are at my slowpoke pace of 6.1 mph. That’s right, I turned on the treadmill JUST to take this picture for you.

Now, I am foolishly training for a half marathon later this summer, and I’m putting together a training plan – kind of a mashup of Galloway and Higdon. In a later post, I’ll probably write more about this, but for now, the important thing to know is that I’m definitely into these little micro-walking breaks that Galloway recommends. (It helps prevent injury by letting your muscles recover quickly before they get all tuckered out.) Last year, when I trained for my first 10-K, I’d run for about 8 or 9 minutes, and then walk for about a minute. I say “about” because I don’t wear a watch when I run.

But Galloway actually recommends that at my current speed, my walking intervals come more frequently – every three minutes.

Here’s his table:

galloway table

As you can see, he’s using pace (minutes per mile), not speed (miles per hour). How do I know what my pace is, given that our treadmill just tells us our speed?

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking – I’m running 6 mph, and that’s a ten minute mile. But a girl can dream, can’t she?

The kids today would probably just look this up on the google, and find a chart that correlates the two. Hell, I probably even HAVE such a chart in my copy of Galloway’s “Half Marathon: You Can Do It”. Or maybe there’s a feature on the treadmill itself that will tell me my pace.


I tinkered around in Microsoft Excel, and discovered that their worksheet functions don’t do the job in one go. I wound up creating this little baby in only seven steps:


You’re just dying to know how I did this, right? Roll up your sleeves…I’m going into geek mode. (You’ll either kinda like this, or you’ll find it excruciatingly dull.)

Step 1. Do the Basic Math


So this first step is simple – I’m just taking 60 minutes per hour, and dividing that by – in this case – 8.5 miles per hour. And I’m rounding it to two decimal points, because if I didn’t, I’d get this garbage of things out to the zillionth decimal place. I now know that in the unlikely event that I have the treadmill set to 8.5 mph, I’m going 7.06 minutes per mile.

But remember that’s in decimals. I want to know how many minutes and SECONDS that is. Put on your scrubs, we’re going in.

Step 2. Convert numbers to text. Excel distinguishes between numbers – which you can do math with – and text. You can do sordid things with text that you can’t do with numbers, as you’ll see in a moment.


The result looks the same to the naked eye - “7.06”. But because we’re now dealing with text, we can perform surgery on it.

Step 3. Scalpel, please. Extract the “7” from “7.06”.


This is actually slightly tricky, because all we know is that the minute is whatever’s to the left of the decimal point. But the decimal point might be the second, or it might be the third, character in. This would not be a problem for certain people who know they’re always going to be under 10 minute miles. Alas, we’re dealing with me.

So we gotta find the decimal point, using the “SEARCH” function. SEARCH will tell us the position of the little bugger. Then we’ll take everything to the left of it using the “LEFT” function. We’ll end up with the minute. For now, we’ll just set that aside, and we’ll get back to it later in Step 7.

Step 4. Now extract the “.06” from “7.06”.


This is actually simpler, because remember how we rounded everything to two decimal places earlier? We know that if we take the right-most three characters, we’ll have the decimal point itself, and the two digits. So here we are with “.06”.

Step 5. Use math to convert decimals to seconds.


Interestingly, even though we converted stuff to text earlier, Excel will let us perform arithmetic calculations on this, so without further ado, we’ll divide the “.06” by 60 to get the actual seconds. We’ll also round it to a whole number while we’re here.

Step 6. Formatting our seconds data consistently

See how that four seconds reads as just “4”? Well, we want it to read as “04”. So what we’re doing here is padding it with two zeroes to the left, and then taking only the rightmost two characters.


So in this case, “4” will be converted to “004” and then stripped down to “04”. I could bore you (no! really?) with more details about how I had to tinker with this to get 0 seconds to show up properly as “00”, but I will refrain.

Step 7. Putting it all back together again.


So here we’re taking the “minute” from Step 3, and mushing it together with a colon and the properly-formatted seconds from Step 6. We have successfully converted 8.5 mph to 7.06 minutes per mile to 7 minutes 4 seconds.

Yes, this is the sort of thing I occasionally do FOR FUN.


Charlie helped me.


I will now reward those of you who stuck around til the end with a picture of how the stain was pulled right off the concrete by a mat we had down on the floor of the bump out. We let the contractors know, and they’re going to call the concrete guy to come deal with it.


Boo Hiss!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

In which our heroes aid the economy

Big news in the Brennan household: we bought a treadmill.  See, this is what happens when you foolishly commit to a half-marathon and then realize that winter running just isn’t happening with sufficient regularity.

The plan was to go down to the Hampshire Mall (about an hour and change south of here) to see Avatar in 3D, and then just go looking at treadmills at Sears. This was on Sunday. An hour or two before we were set to leave, I went online to do a little research, and learned that the mall with the Sears is five exits farther south than the mall with the movie. Duh. (Us rural folk don’t get out much; it’s a good thing we have access to the interweb up here.)

So off we go. Turns out the mall with the movie is a little farther than we expected, and we made it with maybe one minute to spare, finding seats just as the trailers were starting. We couldn’t find seats together, sadly. By the way, it ROCKED. (We’d already seen it in 2D).

Because no blog post is complete without lots of pictures, I will now insert a picture of Neytiri:

neytiri three

Back to our tale.

After the movie, we went to (ick! ick!) a nearby Walmart, just to check out their offerings. And then we headed to the Sears, a half hour away. To make a long story short, we decided to just go ahead and get one, rather than go home to do more research on all the specific models they had, and then have to make another trip.

We went with a Nordictrack Elite zi – last year’s model, no longer available this year, and hugely on sale as a result. We’ve since read reviews, and it turns out we got a great machine at a great price. We elected to get a five-year warranty as well. We really, really, really wanted to pay another $65 and have it delivered and installed, but alas, we live too far away to qualify. The salesguy told us not to worry, assembling it wasn’t that big a deal, 25 minutes, tops.

So, undeterred, we took it home with us. The box, the approximate size and weight of a fully-loaded coffin, barely fit in the Escape. We tied the back door down with clothesline, I bundled up under a sleeping bag in the passenger seat, and we sped home.

When we arrived home around 8:15 pm, the temperature had dropped to below ten.

Plan A was to back the truck up to the deck, and crab-walk it across the deck and through the sliding glass door. This plan tanked when the truck (4WD and all) failed to get traction and got mired in snow.

Plan B was to get it up these stairs:


Did I mention how heavy this thing is? We got it to where it was lying on the stairs, but for the life of me I couldn’t lift my share enough. The box was also starting to look a little worse for wear.

Plan C, to give up and call for reinforcements the next day, was nixed by other, more resilient people.

We finally resorted to Plan D: disassemble the box in situ, and carry the pieces up one by one.


The mangled box.

This worked fine until we got to the heaviest component, which is the treadmill itself and the stone troll that lives inside it and makes it actually work. (I can’t think of any other reason why it should weigh so much.)

Unfortunately, even this piece was too heavy for yours truly to heft it up these stairs.  So we came up with Plan D - Corollary A, which is where we carried (read: staggered) it across the lawn (read: snow field) to the deck, put it on a piece of cardboard, and slid it across the deck.

Total time to unload the truck? One hour. (I did already whine about the temperature, right? You haven’t forgotten that part?)


Two days later, the evidence is still there, mocking me for my wussiness.

The next day, Kevin got started on assembling it. It quickly turned into a two-person job. It did NOT take 25 minutes – it took considerably longer. But it wasn’t that bad, to be honest. Although we’re both still sore, and I sprained my thumb. No matter.

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for…


Here it is, in “hurry up and use me” mode…


…and here it is, in “shhhh, I’m resting” mode. 


Here’s my view from the deck. We could conceivably turn this thing around to face the TV, but then it would block the slider door even when in folded-up position. No worries: it has an iPod jack and speakers, of all the decadent things.

So we set it up yesterday, and we’ve each used it once, and I’m about to use it again. No more excuses not to run! Hooray!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

farewell, gentlemen

It’s official: with the exception of some monkeying around with the former cellar window – scheduled for the spring sometime – the guys are all done. Yep.

Jonathan was here for much of the day, working on…

1. The former cellar window, on the inside.


He slapped up some more concrete. In another couple of hours, I’ll go down there and shave off the bit that is slumping. One more layer in the spring, he thinks. And at that time, he’ll also monkey around on the outside of the house. No pictures of that right now – too damn cold.

2. More curtain rods

Remember how we’d hijacked him last week to put these up for us? The fun continued today with the east-facing windows.


We’d thought we would have three panels here, but with the middle support bracket in the way, we can only have two. Fortunately, the panels are wide enough to cover the span just fine. There’s a bit that needs a painting touch-up from yours truly, as partway through we decided the support bracket should be hiked over a few inches.


And over by the bed…ta-dah…


These are a slightly different color from the others, but they still have that groovalicious 70’s feel.

3. Grab bars for the tub/shower.

100_1239  100_1238

Wee little grab bars, strategically placed. When they framed in the tub, they wrapped the whole thing in plywood before putting in the (mildew-resistant) drywall, so there was no worry about trying to find studs.

That’s it for today…

Sunday, January 3, 2010

thank god we found a plow guy

It snowed a bit last Thursday, and some yesterday, and a bunch last night and today. Last year, for some incomprehensible reason, we just never got around to finding someone to plow our driveway. Instead, we did it by hand, on several occasions – an utterly back-breaking experience. By mid-winter, when I I finally broke down and got someone to take a look at our situation, it was too late: the driveway had narrowed with the snow too much for the guy to fit his nine-foot plow blade. (It gets awfully hard to toss hundreds of shovel-fuls of snow up over 4 feet embankments.) Our neighbor likes to joke that by that point in the season, they’re one storm away from the Donner party.

So this year, after having shoveled out from one storm, we found a plow guy. The arrangement is that he’ll come for anything 3 inches and over. It occurred to me yesterday, what if we get a series of 2 inch dumps? Will he show up? Answer: Yes. Whew.


I’m so used to grabbing the camera every time I see a vehicle pull in the driveway – I just snapped a few photos.


We asked him to clear a path all the way back to the pole barn. First, it will give him a place to dump all the snow. But we also asked for a space behind the garage, and I’ll put my car there. Yes, my car, which is currently inside the garage. Why move a car that’s cosy in a garage to the outdoors? Because of the mice. Over the summer, we put the truck (pictured above) in the pole barn (the farthest away structure shown above), with the kayaks strapped to the top. Mice got in to the engine compartment and made a mess behind the fireproof fabric that lines the hood. Mmmm…mouse pee… kinda gross. So we’ll throw a tarp over it and call it good.


I just don’t have the heart to go running in this mess. The shoulders aren’t wide enough on the side of the road so there’s nowhere to retreat when cars go by. So we are contemplating buying a treadmill. Today, in a fit of cabin fever, I did the weights-portion of my cousin Emily’s recent at-home workout. Oh My God, I am so out of shape. OK, yeah, my most recent run was five and a half miles, but my muscle tone leaves a little something to be desired.

In other news, Kevin tossed the Christmas tree off the end of the deck. (This fits in well with my family’s tradition of throwing the tree out the window – a practice we started when we were renting the second and third floors of a house on a hill overlooking Lake Geneva. Tossing it out of the window was the easiest way to deal with it. Ah, memories…)